On the Value of Art and Art-making

Art was supposed to be my thing. I knew I wanted to be an artist as early as my memory begins. I went to an art magnet high school, spent the summer between my junior and senior years of high school in an art conservatory program, and enrolled in an art college where I spent four years making art. Two years after graduating, my art-making virtually stopped, and now, nearly six years later I’m a web developer. And, no, this isn’t a job to help support my art. I love this job and I sought it specifically. There is no art to speak of.

The cessation of art-making comes with a lot of guilt and anxiety. When one makes art such a part of themselves, and suddenly stops, it can feel like losing one’s identity. I think the same probably goes for anything that anyone does with great passion. You particularly hear a lot about this in art school though, about how to maintain your art-making after graduation, what kinds of habits you can adopt to avoid losing your momentum, and so on, and despite this emphasis, there is, ostensibly, no shame doing something else entirely.

Another thing you hear a lot in art school is the question, “What is art?” The first time you hear it, it seems silly. The next few times you hear it, it seems interesting. The next few times, it seems almost important. But after that, you just want to jab a linocut gouge in your ear and never hear it again. The question sometimes comes with the intention of distinguishing art from “craft” or other works that produce something affecting the physical world, and is often brought to a conclusion that is either entirely nihilistic or existential, before coming full circle and regaining the status of “absurd”, never to be heard again outside of irony and nostalgia.

Recently though, when I run into people from school, there’s a solid chance they’ll ask, “Are you still making art?” It’s a tough question. In the past I’ve done everything from flat-out lie and say yes, to talk about what I’m thinking of working on, to the noncommittal “not really” — anything I could do to make it seem like I hadn’t devolved to half a person, like I still had that magic spark in me, that creative eye, that sense of wonder, that way of seeing the world that most people don’t, and other modernist nonsense like that. Now I just say “nope” and smile. The reason the question is so difficult for me, and I suspect many others, is that I still feel like the same person that made art. The same thoughts and mental processes are still happening in my head. The only difference seems to be that I’m not actually producing any art. As I watch people’s faces turn long when I utter the words “web developer”, like I just said “I have six weeks to live”, I think about that question again. What is art?

Believe me, I understand why artists are so averse to the question. It seems like something a caricature of an artist would ask, and in fact artists, myself included, often blurt it ironically as an inside joke or a way to dump on art as a institution, because obviously it sounds like some heavy-handed philosophical nonsense.

But, if it’s actually such nonsense, why is art — something which people are either virtually unable or unwilling to describe — so divisive? Some believe very strongly in the value of art, and some people wonder why schools need funding to teach kids to use crayons. What if it’s actually worth talking about? I’m all for a light approach to art-viewing; I don’t like to go to a gallery and pick apart what I’m looking at, or certainly not out loud, but maybe if we actually address the question we can help lend some validity to art, highlight its importance, and relieve some of that post-art-school guilt.

For the hell of it, let’s start with a definition. Here’s one from that great fountain of knowledge, Wikipedia:

Art is a diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory or performing artifacts — artworks, expressing the author’s imaginative or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power.

That seems like a pretty good summary of a lot of the worthwhile definitions I’ve heard, but honestly, I still think the last part — “expressing the author’s imaginative or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power” — is some antiquated stuff. What exactly is “imaginative skill”, and is all art really intended to be appreciated for its beauty or emotional power, or appreciated at all for that matter? It feels to me like the general understanding of art is still stuck in the Mystery of Picasso days, when the artist was a brooding and tortured bohemian sex symbol with a deep and profound insight into the nature of life, love, the sacred, and the profane. So what then, some may ask, is the value of art if to be an artist is to spend one’s life huddled penniless in a run-down warehouse inhaling turpentine and slapping paint onto a canvas with a mop, struggling to be understood? Of course I’m exaggerating an image of “the artist” (I hope), but, in my own experience, there is still a huge lack of understanding about why one would pursue art, ergo a lack of understanding in the value of art, and I think it’s because no one really knows what art is.

Here’s one idea, and keep in mind that all that follows is purely speculative; I make no claims that this is absolute truth (or that there is absolute truth, but that’s a different discussion). Art is a product of what I would call philopoiesis, like philosophy, from the Greek meaning “love of wisdom”, philopoiesis would mean “love of creation”. Every person that has ever created something has almost certainly felt the gratification that comes from bringing some previously non-existent thing into being, and, by whatever mechanism, the philopoetic creates habitually. But, how or why does anyone actually feel the need to create anything in the first place? Maybe that’s not so important though, or at least not the right question to ask. Maybe the act of creation for the philopoetic doesn’t come solely from the manipulation of a worldly medium, but occurs partially in the mind. The part that we think of as artistic practice is the second step, and is actually an attempt to recreate that which exists in the mind by communicating to the tangible world. Philopoiesis is less about creation than it is about communication.

At the risk of losing focus, let me explain the idea of art as communication. What exactly is communication? It sounds obvious, and any coherent person would agree that communication is the act of telling other people things you want them to know, or asking other people to do things, etc. For most purposes, that interpretation is accurate, but I think this and other descriptions of communication will almost always include examples of communication in some form that exclude other examples or reasons for communication, and in effect, miss the essence of what’s going on. For example, if we say the purpose of communication is to tell people things, we’re including the act of telling, which itself is part of communication. So here’s a definition that I think covers all the bases: communication is an attempt to affect the internal state of another.

Communication as we know it, typically conversation, is mostly ineffective. Certainly everyone can understand this. As Radiohead says in a song, using two different metaphors, “Words are blunt instruments. Words are a sawed-off shotgun.” How often do we communicate with people only to be grossly misunderstood? This is why presidents and world leaders, the people we choose to make decisions concerning our lives and livelihoods, have speech writers: because they can’t afford to touch words themselves. It’s the same reason people sit and watch debates in which those same leaders are asked questions and deliver answers as candidly as possible. We want to see who will mess it up the least. Thankfully, humans have developed what I’ll call, for lack of a better term, “communicative technologies”, that help us out, and these are used primarily and to their greatest extent in what we know as “the arts”.

These communicative technologies function much like, and are fundamentally related to, mathematics. In mathematics we use numbers and symbols to abstract states of quantitative existence. The number 6 represents a quantity. It doesn’t represent six of anything, even of other abstractions, since “6” itself isn’t real and to say that “6” represents six of something is circular; it only represents a quantity which can either be referred to as “6” or demonstrated to be just such as it is. For the purposes of knowing quantities that are either too large or too small to be practically demonstrated, or for knowing quantities of things that aren’t anywhere near us, or don’t exist yet, or may never exist, we abstract these quantities with numbers. In this way, anyone can look at, say, a pile of bricks, and without counting each one, know exactly how many bricks lay before them.

We have similar tools in the arts. Take, for example, the quote I presented earlier from Radiohead. I made sure to point out that it uses two different metaphors. Metaphor is a tool used in the language arts to communicate. Like numbers and symbols in mathematics, metaphors use abstractions to convey complex information. How many words do you think it would take to explain the nature of words in full detail without making any comparisons? More importantly, how many more words would it take to make someone feel something about words? In the nine words from the quote, we’ve learned that words are dangerous, imprecise, powerful, often deadly, and used with malice. On top of that, we now have a feeling about words, even if it’s not the same feeling as the author, and to top it off, we’re probably thinking about sawed-off shotguns.

This is one of the most important features of communication: its effect on our internal state. All forms of communication come at us as a stream of stimuli. The sounds you hear, the light you see, and the heat of the afternoon sun on your skin all become apparent to you through chain reactions that fire off electrical impulses to your brain. Over the course of our lifetimes, everything we experience, the cacophony of stimulation, comes to be organized in our mind as a vast and highly nuanced set of abstractions which help us interact with our surroundings. People born blind who have had their sight restored report not actually being able to see anything even though they are technically “seeing” things, that is, effectively transmitting information about emitted and reflected light from their optic nerves to their brains. This speaks volumes about how much we abstract what we see. People with sight take for granted the ability to perform a simple act such as grabbing a ball, but, to the uninitiated, the hardest part of grabbing a ball would be first figuring out what an object, any object, looks like. As soon as we’re able to organize our world into abstractions such as “cat” or “dog” or “ball”, we’ve made sensory connections with all these things. A “cat” is more than just an image to us. The abstract “cat” encompasses sounds like meowing, textures like soft fur, smells like a litter box, but everyone’s abstraction will be different depending on how it was formed. For some, cats may encompass the feeling of pain from being scratched, or sadness for having belonged to a loved one who passed. It is well known that cats and dogs tend to be gendered in certain societies, particularly in the West where cats are often female and dogs are often male. Almost none of these things inherently make up what we call a “cat”, and yet we hold so firmly to them.

The crux of what I’m getting at here comes from the idea that these abstractions are themselves combinations of other abstractions. A cat is a combination of abstractions that break down to an infinitesimal level, and yet, without the aide of a microscope, or even a magnifying glass, we don’t consider abstractions of a cat beyond those that are readily observable to be constituent of a cat. Things like cats, dogs, and balls themselves make up other abstractions —a litter of cats, a dog park, a ball pit— though, theoretically, these should be indistinguishable from their parts. Parts of abstractions form associations in our mind that evoke the whole. To see a cat’s paw is to see a cat (assuming the seer has seen a cat with its paw intact before). No one would see a cat’s paw, recognize it as such, and think, “But what does this belong to?” We can’t even fathom it. Any conscious effort to disconnect the understanding of a cat’s paw from a cat will prove futile. Like turning on a string of lights, with the flick of a switch, the closing of a circuit, stimulating one light stimulates all the lights it’s connected to. To stimulate one abstraction is to stimulate all associated abstractions to some degree. Consider “connotations” versus “denotations”. Consider the confederate flag. In America, the Civil War era flag of the confederate states is highly controversial, but the controversy has nothing to do with what the flag denotes. The flag itself denotes itself, that is, a red banner with white bordered blue bars crossed at its center, lined with white stars. It could also be said that it denotes a confederation of separatist states that existed in the mid 19th century American South. What it connotes however is very different. To many, it connotes hundreds of years of human atrocity in the form of abduction and slavery, specifically enslaved Africans, and the ignorance and hate that would survive the institution’s outlaw to today. These are the associations that are triggered by the mere image of a flag.

And this is what communication as a whole is meant to do. It’s the deliberate stimulation of abstract associations. To speak a word is to stimulate associations with that word’s sound. To write a word is to stimulate associations with the image of the word. This is the reason that when we read, or listen, or speak, we’re rarely doing any of those things with absolute meticulousness. It’s inefficient. We have so many things abstracted already that there’s no need to pick apart every single word and every single letter of every single word. A glance at a word triggers instant recognition. Small talk between friends can be wordy or sparse, but either way, a good deal of it lacks any semantic substance that can be easily broken down into other words. The most commonly spoken words are often the ones that lose meaning when translated to other languages. For example, how might you explain the meaning of the phrase “What’s up?” or even the reason for the dialogue initiated by the question “How are you?” However, with some attention, words, and any other form of communication, can be very powerful.

So, when I say that the philopoiesis is an attempt to recreate, what I mean is that when we create something, even before we’ve created it outside of ourselves, it effectively exists. Whether we’re visualizing it or not, we have somehow conceptualized that thing in our minds. We know it and feel it and we feel all of our associations with it as it is at once both a product and a factor of those associations. To attempt to create it is an attempt to recreate the state that we are in during this conceptualization, which, in order to do effectively, requires choosing just the right stimuli. The various artistic disciplines have a variety of stimuli at their disposal, and thus the challenge for the artist is to choose the right ones. Writers have words and phrases, dancers have movement, musicians have sound, photographers have light, and so on. To some artists, or perhaps all artists at some point, this is a matter of course and not quite as conscious a decision as it sounds. A kid drawing a monster that she’s imagined isn’t likely thinking about what kind of horns will best convey a sense of mischief without being terrifying, but rather she draws a few things until something feels right, thereby validating that her inner state matches what she’s put on paper.

This kind of trial-and-error communication is clearly not limited to kids and adult doodlers. I can attest that even in art school the trial-and-error process is pervasive. But why wouldn’t it be? Art students — visual art students anyway — suffer through plenty of formal lessons on the effects of color, light, materials, composition, and all the kinds of stimuli that one may utilize, but in the scope of what the average art student hopes to be able to communicate, these elementary principles, when put to use, eventually come off heavy-handed and amount to shouting — think images of disembodied crying eyeballs in the sky, blood, occult-like symbols, and the like. The challenge for artists is in communicating the complexities of our inner states.

In order to meet these challenges, artists often need to become philosophers. Traditionally, philosophers have pondered the nature of things, the nature of human activity, or even the nature of existence itself. Questions of philosophy are questions of the unknown and potentially unknowable. In fact, a classic topic in philosophy is whether or not one can actually know anything at all. Artists are faced with the philosophical challenge of communication, of recreating experience in another person, and this may be where artists get their reputation for being so mysterious and insightful. It may be that those who take up art are inherently more observant in particular ways, but it’s equally likely—in fact it’s fairly obvious—that art-making exercises one’s observational skills. It’s more than observing the way light falls across a draped sheet next to some fruit, or the way a dancer moves across a stage; it’s observing the nature of those things, how they relate to each other, and how they relate to ourselves.

Over time I’ve come to appreciate that the value of formal education, particularly the years leading up to and through high school, is not in acquiring knowledge but in acquiring a thirst for it. The value of art-making is much more than creating material expressions of “beauty or emotional power”. The value of art-making is in its inquiry and its potential to instill in us great and lasting inquisitiveness. It wasn’t until I made a more-or-less conscious decision in high school to go full-force into art that I really started to love school, and that’s no coincidence.

So you may be like me, a former “artist”, and you may feel racked with guilt when you think about all the work you used to produce and compare it to whatever you’re up to now, but you can rest assured that the cessation of art-making is okay. Sure, the world would be worse off if everyone stopped producing art. Art is, after all, “beautiful”. Even if it’s repulsive, even if it’s boring, even if it’s questionably art, there’s no denying that the range of activities art encompasses, these attempts at communicating an experience to each other, are inexplicable and demonstrative of the love that, while not often self-evident, deep down, ties the world together. But, of all the theories I’ve espoused in this writing, the one that I’m fairly certain of is that art will never go away. The real tragedy would be in losing that which art helps cultivate, whether you call it wonderment, inquisitiveness, mindfulness, or whatever. If you’ve still got that, you’re good.